Despite the recent cold and cloudy weather slowing down the start of our azalea blooming season, the Tyler Azalea and Spring Flower Trail will kick off Friday, with the opening ceremonies and ribbon cutting Sunday at the Pyrons' lovely garden on Dobbs Street. Some nice sunny and warm days should speed up bud break and the wonderful display, not only on the trail, but all across our region.
I have written about azaleas many times before, and why not? Our climate and soils are so well suited for these plants that add so much beauty to our landscapes and gardens. To thrive, azaleas need soils that are acidic and well drained, and many of the soils in our area meet those conditions. When planting azaleas, spend your money and time in preparing the garden soils by adding of lots of organic matter, such as a finished compost, finely ground pine bark, or peat moss. Avoid poorly drained soils that stay wet long after it rains or after an irrigation.
Azaleas do best with partial sun — morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. Too much shade and they will not bloom well. Give too much sun and they may stress if soil moisture and other conditions are not ideal. Avoid planting them near trees like elms or maples where their shallow roots will compete with the azaleas for soil moisture and room for root growth.
Be ready to water azaleas regularly, especially for several months after planting. Check the soil for moisture content because, while you don't want them to get too dry between waterings, you also do not want to keep the soil constantly wet, either. Once established, you won't need to water as often.
Apply mulch over the surface of the soil to reduce water evaporation. Pine straw is an excellent material, and pine bark works well, also. The mulch should be about 3 inches deep, and will need to be replenished periodically as it breaks down. No need to remove the old mulch prior to adding a new layer. The decaying products enrich the soil and will support healthy root growth.
There are so many different types of azaleas that can be used in our landscapes that sometimes it can be hard to make a decision. Not only do you need to think about flower color and combinations of colors, you should pay close attention to the ultimate size of these shrubs. Sizes can range from low-growing types like the Gumpo azaleas, to medium-large shrubs that grow 8 or more feet tall if unpruned, represented by many in the Southern Indica hybrid group. I suggest you take advantage of the Tyler Azalea and Spring Flower Trail to see how different kinds of azaleas grow, and get ideas on color combinations.
Blooming season is another thing to think about when selecting azaleas for a garden. Many of the popular types are considered early bloomers, starting middle to late March and lasting until early to middle April. Other varieties are mid-season, with heavy bloom displays starting in early to middle April and lasting for several weeks. Still others, like those in the Gumpo and Satsuki hybrid groups, wait until May to start blooming.
Then, there are those that will bloom more than one time per year. A few older varieties tend to bloom again in the fall, and then along came the Encore varieties, that were purposely bred for their reblooming qualities. There are now a couple of other azalea series like Deja Bloom and Bloom-A-Thon that have been developed to bloom more than one time per year.
One of my favorite types of azaleas are the deciduous azaleas, which have markedly different growth habits and flower colors. Most are native to the southern and eastern parts of the U.S. These azaleas differ from the more familiar evergreen counterparts because they lose their leaves in winter, and typically bloom before or as they put on new leaves in spring. The flowers are more tubular, and often very sweetly fragrant. And the colors are very striking, from the clusters of pale to medium pink flowers of the Piedmont or Honeysuckle Azalea (R. canescens), to the striking gold, orange, yellow and blends of the Florida and Flame Azaleas (R. austrinum, R. flammeum) and the many hybrid varieties. These plants typically grow tall, up to 8 feet, and work well in the back of a shrub bed. Fortunately, they are becoming more readily available as nursery growers have developed better methods for propagating these difficult to root types.
In addition to the two routes on the trail, be sure to check out the Ina Brundrett Azalea Garden on the campus of Tyler Junior College near the "duck pond, west of the Tyler Museum of Art. There you will find many types of azaleas, including large plantings of the reblooming Encore varieties.
If you are looking for additional places to see lots of azaleas in one location, make the short drive to the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden in the SFA Arboretum in Nacogdoches. They have one of the largest public garden collections of azaleas in Texas, including a very large number of deciduous azalea varieties.
They are free and open to the public.